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Unbridled Satisfaction at a Riding-Therapy Ranch for Kids

Marking 9/11 Day of Service, a volunteer finds magic

Simple labor can be inspiring—or so said one of my long-ago college professors, who told of having brilliant ideas pop into his head as he washed the dinner dishes. As I put my shoulder into scrubbing the muck out of a water trough at Walk On!, a horse-riding therapy program near Celina, Texas, I wondered why nothing even vaguely profound was stirring in my brain.

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After a small ration of ranch-hand work—erecting a corral fence, scrubbing out buckets and feeding and watering five horses, two donkeys and a goat that thinks he’s a dog—all I could think of was how pleasant it is being around such amiable creatures. The scent of hay, horses, old leather and wet wool creates an unmistakable sense of place.

The most important work at Walk On! begins Sept. 12, when 10 autistic children are set to start 10 weekly therapy sessions. On the backs of Lady, Bella and Dakota, they’ll learn social skills, cooperation and how to build confidence and develop trust. Sometimes, success means getting a 7-year-old boy to tolerate wearing his safety helmet or just coaxing a little girl to uncoil herself and get out of the car.

For the past seven years, Eddie and Tara Malphrus have offered the all-volunteer program on their five-acre ranch just north of the Dallas sprawl. She’s a special education teacher. He’s an information technology professional. Somehow they meet their budget for horse feed and vet care. From time to time, a church group or local business steps in to build a covered arena or a classroom.

“It’s the volunteers who make it go,” said Eddie Malphrus. Three adults are needed to surround each young rider during the weekend sessions. Horse chores are constant during the week.

One of the most committed volunteers is Sue Sheil, 57. She teaches newcomers the ways of halters and bridles and using horses to improve children’s lives. She told me why she chose Walk On! and why she has stayed over the years. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved horses,” Sheil said. Her grandparents lived on a ranch in south Texas but didn’t keep horses. “We’d put a bridle on a propane tank and, I can tell you, I rode that horse everywhere,” she recalls.

Volunteering on the Malphrus ranch is rich with genuine “horse stuff.” For some people, including me, there is magic enough in that.

Thomas Korosec lives in Dallas, Texas.

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